Jack Lawrence hails the kings and queens of shoegaze on their magnum opus Loveless
In February 1989, My Bloody Valentine entered the studio of their label Creation Records with the expectation and promise of completing their sophomore album Loveless in the next five days. Nearly two years, nineteen gruelling recording sessions and an estimated £250,000 later, the album was finally released, having almost bankrupted Creation and destroyed the band altogether. The reason for this was purely due to ambition; though many other essential indie bands of the early 1990s such as Pavement or The Pixies were famous for their lo-fi or ‘stripped back’ production styles, My Bloody Valentine’s frontman Kevin Shields was an auteur of the highest order – he demanded that this album be nothing less than perfect.
Listening to Loveless today, it seems as though Shields’ demands were truly met, as this album is astoundingly perfect and progressive for a rock album, standing now as probably one of the best ever made, in my opinion. The reason that Loveless remains completely essential is due to its truly unique approach to sound, texture and songwriting, something that I’ve been completely fascinated with since I first heard it. This ultimately makes the album, even 26 years later, as challenging and experimental as it is catchy, melodic, and serene. A perfect indication of what Loveless sounds like is the album cover – the overpowering image of a guitar, shrouded and distorted by a bright pink haze.
In the music of Loveless, this ‘pink haze’ comes in the form of heavy walls of guitar noise and feedback, which is often drenched in effects and mixed, using Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ mono recording, right into the centre of the music itself. This incredibly powerful and distinctive sound is one employed throughout the entire album, flirting with dynamics to deliver moments that are as frighteningly loud and violent as they are gorgeous and psychedelic. One such moment is on the opening track of the album, ‘Only Shallow’, in which the first ten seconds feature a short drum intro that is suddenly attacked at all sides by a thunderous and soaring guitar riff. This abrupt and intense moment so early on in Loveless acts as a perfect introduction to the album’s unique world and style.
What makes the eleven tracks on this album stand out from most (if not all) rock music is this close attention to dynamics. Sweet, whispered verse sections of songs often give way to extremely loud choruses and guitar riffs that retain an immense sense of size and scale every time they repeat. However, the way the album is mixed and recorded makes it an oddly quiet ‘loud’ album, with even the crushingly distorted layers of guitars on ‘What You Want’ and ‘Only Shallow’ never becoming overbearing or uncomfortable; they remain, as stated in the latter track – ‘soft as a pillow’.
It is perhaps this ‘heaviness’ of My Bloody Valentine’s instrumentals that set them apart from their shoegaze and dream-pop contemporaries, the riffs and intense layers of sound at times resembling doom or sludge metal in the vein of bands like The Melvins or Sleep. Though The Cocteau Twins and the later Slowdive also adopted the similarly dreamy aesthetic of My Bloody Valentine’s music, their songs were often more grounded in pop songwriting, something that Loveless seems to make an effort to reject in its uncommercial and frequently elusive musical style.
It is difficult to do the tracks on Loveless justice in writing – though they all occupy a similar mood and approach to sound, every track remains totally memorable and distinct, signifying a real ‘peak’ for the band. The alien, noisy and serene ‘To Here Knows When’ remains perhaps the most experimental track the band ever recorded, its pulsing guitar distortion and unidentifiable sounds essentially clouding everything else in the mix and creating a deep and impenetrable kind of ambience.
The lengthy, dance-influenced closer ‘Soon’ is another standout and unique song, one that was even praised by Brian Eno for “setting a new standard for pop” due to its odd yet distinctly catchy approach to songwriting. It is on tracks like these that the band’s ambition is most strongly felt, retaining a sense of uniqueness and genuine otherworldliness that modern shoegaze bands have yet to replicate.
Songs like ‘Loomer’ forego traditional rock instrumentation entirely, this song’s heavy and brooding bass making up for the complete lack of drums or rhythm section and drawing attention instead to the washes of guitar and vocals. When the production is stripped back somewhat on tracks such as this and the later ‘Blown a Wish’, the vocals can be particularly admired for their almost androgynous quality – Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s singing often overlapping to create an odd and surreal effect that only further stresses the mysterious nature of the songs. Even the structure of more traditional tracks like ‘When You Sleep’ or ‘I Only Said’ are similarly layered and unique, featuring sampled drums, flute solos, reversed vocal harmonies and various other intricately weird production tricks buried in the ‘pink haze’ which I’m sure I’ll never uncover.
Something absolutely essential to the album is the atmosphere it creates. Loveless sets a unique mood better than almost any album I’ve ever heard, its nocturnal, sensual and dreamy sound being one that many bands have strived to replicate, though never to the same level of perfection and simple charm. This nocturnal nature of the album is most strongly felt in my favourite track ‘Sometimes’, an understated ballad that uses the themes of sleep and dreaming to symbolise the end of a relationship – ‘close my eyes… feel me now’. This intimacy is also accentuated by the rare and creative use of acoustic guitar, buried underneath the hazy distorted guitars and an absolutely gorgeous synth line that fades the track to its conclusion. Despite its alien and surreal nature, tracks like ‘Sometimes’ highlight how Loveless remains grounded in distinctly ‘human’ and relatable emotions, therefore never getting carried away by pretensions.
Due to the album’s focus on texture and sound over discernible elements of traditional songwriting, the lyrics and vocals presented on Loveless can be often too readily ignored. Part of this is due to the intentional distortion of Kevin Shield’s and Bilinda Butcher’s vocals throughout the album, which are often buried under instrumental mixing to the extent that the lyrics can get completely lost in translation. Though the instrumentals of the album are certainly the most important aspect of the recordings, the drunken, sleepy vocals presented on Loveless seem to add another dimension to the noise, often working as an additional melody rather than having decipherable lyrics. In my opinion, the lyrics still remain an important aspect of the overall work, detailing love, relationships and heartbreak in suitably mysterious fashion.
The themes of love present on Loveless are topics touched upon so often in music that they sometimes risk becoming cliché. However, the way these themes are approached allows some lines and lyrics to remain particularly cryptic, never using names or context behind vague statements like ‘turn my head into sound / I don’t know, when I lay down on the ground’. Like the music itself, the lyrics on Loveless are constantly elusive, therefore inviting repeated listens and analysis.
Though the band’s previous album Isn’t Anything and their collection of EPs were equally concerned with expressive and experimental guitar work, the atmosphere created in Loveless allowed My Bloody Valentine’s music and songwriting to particularly flourish, therefore establishing it as not only their defining work as a band, but also the defining ‘shoegaze’ album in music history. The strength of the album also meant that we would not hear a follow-up for 23 years, as the band disbanded shortly after an infamously loud tour and having been (understandably) dropped from their record label. By the time My Bloody Valentine had reunited and 2014’s MBV was released, Loveless had become all but immortalised, remaining even now a real highlight in rock music.
Because of its fantastic and completely unique sound, Loveless has remained one of my favourite records since the very first time I heard it. Despite having repeated the album an excessive amount (and I mean excessive), new layers or details seem to present themselves every single time I listen to it, something I think is indicative of a truly great and ‘essential’ album. Impossible to be imitated, this album showed My Bloody Valentine redefine the idea of ‘noise’ in music entirely, working through intense trial and effort in the recording studio and creating a genuine masterpiece. Listen to it loud.